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Headteachers signed up by ministry to praise Gove’s free school policies

Headteachers signed up by ministry to praise Gove’s free school policies

guardian.co.uk |by Jeevan Vasagar on July 11, 2012

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Michael Gove

Education secretary Michael Gove is due to announce the next wave of free schools soon. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Civil servants at the Department for Education were asked by Michael Gove’s advisers to enlist sympathetic headteachers who could act as defenders of controversial government policies, including the creation of free schools.

The PR operation involved creating a database of sympathisers who could advocate policy instead of ministers. Quotes from headteachers on the database were added to official announcements. It was shut down amid concern that it risked politicising the civil service.

The education secretary, who is due to announce the next wave of free schools imminently, has faced mounting criticism in recent weeks.

The Stakeholder and Advocacy team was established within the DfE last April as the government prepared for the opening of the first free schools.

One source with knowledge of the operation said: “It was just a pretty simple database: anyone supportive of free schools or academies or back-to-basics 1950s schooling was just dumped on the database, you could roll them out with an announcement – to back it. It was all driven by spads [special advisers].”

The new drive marked a shift from the traditional civil service method of using data to back government announcements, the source said. “DfE [in the past] would just put out loads of data; Tory spads were from a softer PR background and wanted to use case studies.”

The aim was to have headteachers advancing policy rather than ministers, the source said.

Headteachers on the list included Patricia Sowter, head of an academy school, who spoke before Gove at the Conservative party conference in 2010.

Press releases from the DfE in the past year have frequently included supportive quotes from headteachers. An announcement about the new school admissions code had a quote from Rob McDonough, headteacher at West Bridgford school in Nottingham, which read: “I very much welcome the direction of change. Through greater school autonomy, and the academies programme, which will positively impact upon standards, I do believe this will increase the supply of good school places for parents.”

McDonough told the Guardian: “In that particular instance, I had as a headteacher been invited to work on the working party looking at the new admissions code. The fact that as a practising headteacher I’d been offered the opportunity to look at all the new admissions proposals, I was very appreciative of that. If they’re putting my name to that on a press release, it’s justified.”

External endorsement has been an important source of support at a time when Gove faces intense criticism. The education secretary’s proposed reforms have been attacked by senior figures including Lord Adonis, the former schools minister, and the director of the Institute of Education, Chris Husbands.

Gove is due to announce which free schools are approved to open in September 2013 before parliament rises on 17 July.

While the Labour government also sought out supportive headteachers, Gove’s team wanted to put this PR operation on a formal footing, another source said. The operation was closed down amid concern about how the people on the database were selected, and that civil servants were being asked to do work that was the province of special advisers. The civil service is required to be politically impartial while special advisers assist ministers in areas where the work of the government and governing party overlap.

“If you were being uncharitable you could say it was using civil servants to wheel out Tory supporters,” a source said.

Civil servants would be encouraged to add names to the list by ministerial aides who said: “This guy’s good, we know him from Tory circles.”

In response to questions in parliament from the Labour MP Lisa Nandy, the government confirmed the team was intended to “improve relationships and build understanding of the department’s policies with key stakeholders”.

Nandy said: “I asked these questions because I was increasingly concerned about the politicisation of the civil service. It has been incredibly difficult to get answers to parliamentary questions and FOI requests out of the DfE, and particularly in relation to this group on why it was disbanded so suddenly.

“If you set that within the wider context of the last two years – public money awarded without a proper tendering process to an organisation run by a former [Gove] adviser, Tory donors brought on to the board of the Department for Education, an outside body linked to the Tory party directing civil servants, and private emails used to discuss official business – it seems there is a blurring of boundaries between the Conservative party and the civil service, which is a significant cause for concern, and deserves answers.”

The PR drive was established after the media strategist James Frayne was appointed Gove’s director of communications. Frayne, a former campaigns director at the Taxpayers’ Alliance,  has written about the importance of “mobilising third parties”.

Frayne is leaving the DfE post at the end of August to work for the Republicans in this year’s US presidential elections.

A DfE spokesman said: “The Stakeholder and Advocacy Team was created in the spring of 2011 and existed for just over six months. In that time it helped stage events on the curriculum and on maths and science policy. It also generated lists of interested parties that were invited to events and kept informed about departmental policy. It was closed as part of a restructure which halved the size of the communications team.

“All civil servants operate under the civil service code. Any substantive allegations of breaches of the code would be investigated in the usual way.”

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Education in brief: are GCSEs the new O-levels?

Education in brief: are GCSEs the new O-levels?

guardian.co.uk |July 9, 2012

  • Warwick Mansell
Pupils sit GCSE exams in a school hall

Exams: should they be GCSEs or O-levels? Photograph: Jim Wileman/Alamy

GCSEs: the new O-levels?

Michael Gove’s leaked plans to reintroduce O-levels to schools, seemingly inspired by the success of an “international” version of the exam operated by one of England’s big three exam boards and taken by teenagers in Singapore, rightly made headlines last month.

But less noticed has been a move by another of the boards, Edexcel, quietly to scrap its own version of the exam three years ago.

Edexcel, owned by Pearson, replaced its International O-levels with its existing International GCSE brand. Intriguingly, a 2009 document for teachers explaining the move described the IGCSE as “the most up-to-date qualification from the UK” and “the same [as O-level] but with modern references”.

How very off-message. Speed Read wonders what Mr Gove thinks. A Pearson spokeswoman says: “The demand internationally is for qualifications which reflect the UK curriculum. With the introduction of the GCSE, the demand shifted to IGCSE, rather than international versions of an old qualification.”

Cheats’ charter

Confirmation came last week, in Peter Wilby’s interview in these pages with Ofqual’s chief executive, Glenys Stacey, that exam board seminars in which senior examiners give teachers advice on how to boost their pupils’ grades are being banned. These advice sessions were, of course, the backdrop to a series of undercover scoops in the Daily Telegraph last December. But is this the end of the matter?

In 2009, BBC Radio Five Live reported on controversial advice being given to teachers at a seminar run not by a board, but privately, by a former languages examiner who guided his attendees on how to “script” pupils’ answers in the oral section of French GCSE.

Would such seminars be banned? Ofqual’s powers are limited, it seems; it says it only has powers to regulate the work of “awarding organisations”, or the boards themselves. So while “face-to-face seminars that relate directly to specific, named qualifications” and are run by the boards themselves will cease from next year, there is no such stipulation on those hosted by private organisations. A loophole, perhaps?

A positive outlook

A fascinating insight into the darker arts of education public relations is provided on the website of the firm Communitas. The company, based in Battersea, south London, sets out how it has secured positive news coverage for its clients, many of them academies.

West London academy, which opened in 2003, had “significant reputation and messaging challenges to overcome in the local community”, Communitas tells readers, not least after Ofsted expressed serious concerns about management and pupil behaviour there two years later.

The company therefore launched a strategy to “limit the damage from the worst critical comments in the report”, and proceeded to “work the media”.

At Eastbourne academy in Darlington, where it created a new “brand identity” for the school, Communitas says “early challenges were around staff management issues that needed delicate and skilled management to avoid unwelcome press coverage”, while the section on Shirebrook academy in Derbyshire says Communitas’s emphasis was to make the consultation process as “easy as possible”, as “creating this ease is particularly vital for communications with any vocal minority who may be unsure about the … founding of an academy”.

Is this a good use of public money? Maybe Speed Read needs a good “working” before we are convinced.

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